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May 22, 2006

A Storytelling Story

Pretty much everyone interested in knowledge management knows that storytelling can be an effective knowledge-sharing technique, largely because it conveys context, causal relationships, and emotional content more effectively than most other modes of communication.

Here’s one little story about storytelling that suggests some of the benefits.

For six years, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory librarian Teresa Bailey has been overseeing monthly storytelling sessions at JPL’s library that often attract fifty or more listeners. Some stories have focused on fairly narrow technical or scientific issues (for instance, “Discovery of Sulfur Dioxide on Jupiter’s Satellite Io”). Other stories have dealt with particular missions (“The True Story Behind the Mars Pathfinder Success”), with more general learning from experience (“How Spacecraft Fail”), and with the organization itself (“Jet Propulsion Laboratory—The Early Years”).

What do people get from these stories? Some pick up bits of wisdom they can apply to their own work—do’s and don’t’s of planning and design, maybe a technical insight that helps solve a problem. Some are inspired by stories of success. Most gain a greater sense of connection with the organization, because they hear about what colleagues have been doing, because the stories express values and aims that tellers and listeners share, and because they are participating in a communal experience. I believe building trust and relationships is a more important effect of organizational storytelling than knowledge transfer.

Knowledge managers seldom talk about what stories do for their tellers. In fact, the benefits of telling a story can be profound. Shaping stories helps people make sense of experiences they’ve had. Telling them to a receptive audience not only provides heartening evidence that colleagues find your work interesting and valuable, it remind the tellers how much they care about what they do. Describing her scientist and engineer storytellers, Bailey says, “They don’t even know how passionate they are about their work until they start talking about it.”

The person who learns most from the story is often the one who tells it.

Posted by Don Cohen on May 22, 2006 12:35 PM | Permalink

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